The smell of the venue isn’t usually something I have to mention in a concert review, but my visit to the 46th Istanbul Music Festival began with the heady scent of spices and incense that fills the air in the city’s Grand Bazaar, setting the scene for equally sensual music, performed by the Melodies of Istanbul Orchestra under the spirited direction of Hakan Güngör. Their programme mixed together music that reflected Istanbul’s rich blend of European and Asian cultures, and gave me a most welcome jolt to all my senses after a long day trapped in the sterile world of modern air travel.

Hakan Güngör © Courtesy of Istanbul Music Festival
Hakan Güngör
© Courtesy of Istanbul Music Festival

The first half slid between solo improvisations showcasing the orchestra’s traditional instruments, and lively ensemble performances of tunes from the Balkans to Afghanistan. Three wind instruments – the ney and kaval (both flutes) and the duduk (a double-reed pipe from Armenia) – began with soft, fluid improvisations, with Hakan Güngör adding rippling spread chords on the qanun, a flat harp, similar to the zither or psaltery and easing into a lovely, lamenting Syriac hymn Ya Mariam el. A percussion solo put a stop to the languid mood and threw us headlong into an intoxicating sequence. Dejgidi Ludi Mladi, a stomping Macedonian song that recalls the lost pleasures of youth, was all Balkan fire, with an exuberant accordion solo and energetic violins, as was the Greek Ta Xyla later in the set, in which the two halves of the band egged each other on with a call and response, and I don’t think I was alone in wanting to get up and throw myself into one of those mad Balkan circle dances. A duduk improvisation by Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian was almost minimalist as it fluttered in little variations around a single sustained note, garnished with the twangy vibrato of a fretless guitar, followed by an Armenian song of battle Menk Kadj Tohmi, given full-blooded passion by the ensemble.

Yurdal Tokcan © Courtesy of Istanbul Music Festival
Yurdal Tokcan
© Courtesy of Istanbul Music Festival

The concert was amplified, which was probably necessary as the arcades of the Grand Bazaar were not designed for music, but this meant that sometimes the full emotional violin sound in the ensemble pieces felt a bit overly cinematic. However, this muscular sound was extremely effective in the piece that ended the first section, the Afghan song Laila Djan. The flutes added sensual colourings over a pulsating accompaniment that grew in volume and intensity to a really explosive ending.

In the second section of the concert, four soloists took turns with the orchestra, beginning with cellist Çağ Erçağ. The order they played from this point didn’t follow the printed programme, so it was harder to be certain of the titles, but there was no mistaking Erçağ’s second piece, an arrangement of the Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite acknowledging the role of Western Europe in Istanbul’s history and culture. This was very definitely not period Bach, but the wide vibrato matched the sound world of this concert and the double bass accompaniment recalled Jacques Loussier’s jazz interpretations of Baroque music. An improvisatory violin solo took over from the cello, before the two lines joined together to good effect.

The jazz mood continued through Erçağ’s set with some forceful clarinet playing from Ömür Küçükler, who also added some nice touches to complement the first piece by the next soloist, Yurdal Tokcan, playing the oud (lute), whose set built up from tremulant solo to a exciting whirlwind full of orchestral colour, harmonic shifts and rhythmic complexity, but always with the oud audible and sparkling at the top of the texture.

Melodies of Istanbul Orchestra © Courtesy of Istanbul Music Festival
Melodies of Istanbul Orchestra
© Courtesy of Istanbul Music Festival

One Western name who springs to mind in connection with tonight’s music is Jordi Savall, who often mixes Eastern music with medieval Western music. A number of tonight’s performers have worked with Jordi Savall, and the Laila Djan was familiar to me from one of his albums. This passion for being unconstrained by the traditional borders of musical genre has clearly been passed on, as the next soloist was Savall’s son Ferran, a singer and guitarist. His first song, the Hebrew Numi Numi, was accompanied by a sleepy flute and deep strings. The mood was cooled right down with singing that was soft and supple but with a rich edge to it.

The final soloist Kudsi Erguner took us through all the rich palette of colours that the ney is capable of, from dark woody tones in its lower register up to a brighter, clearer sound. I was also struck by the amount of colour that Erguner added not just on the larger scale of whole phrases or pieces but to individual notes, giving a sense that each one had been carefully thought about and shaped. All four soloists came back on stage to join the orchestra for a final shindig, and I had the distinct impression that they were enjoying themselves so much they could have gone on all night.

****1